Described as the denim of South Africa, shweshwe, the pure cotton fabric in multiple patterns and colours produced exclusively in the Eastern Cape province, is worn by women in every cranny of the country.
It's been around for 170 years, at first imported, now produced in South Africa, and is as ubiquitous as the braai or barbecue. First worn by German settlers and Xhosa women from the 1840s onwards, besides the trademark blue, brown and red, it is now produced by Da Gama Textiles in a range of colours. The cloth is made into anything from traditional wedding dresses, to stylish designs for out-there women.
Johannesburg designer Bongiwe Walaza has made it her personal signature fabric, creating gorgeous designs that dazzle on the catwalk.
"I love the prints," she says. "They inspire me. I like to coordinate the colours. I really love working with it."
It's something she does with aplomb, combining the patterned fabrics in frills, layers and stylish bodices, in long and short dresses and skirts, usually using up to 10 metres for each outfit.
Walaza says she gets her design inspiration from looking through the catalogue of new fabric designs; once she has the fabric in front of her, the ideas flow. She says her background, growing up in the Eastern Cape, where women still wear the fabric as traditional dress, provides her prime inspiration.
"When someone gets married, they wear shweshwe; it's just a home thing. I wanted to make it fashion."
Walaza's mother was a dressmaker, and she learnt the basics at her elbow while growing up.
From engineering to design
She originally qualified as an electrical engineer, and she still sees this training as useful. She says she lays out her designs, flat, and "draughts a pattern", with multiple designs for each dress. "I don't use a mannequin."
Rees Mann, the man behind the rebirth of downtown Joburg's fashion district, says of her: "She understands the technical aspects of fashion; she constructs garments, like an architect."
Walaza worked for a while as an engineer but when she came to work wearing one of her designs, her colleagues clamoured for her to make them similar dresses. It wasn't long before she changed careers, and moved to Durban in KwaZulu-Natal to study fashion design. While there, from her first year she picked up awards and nominations, and showcased her designs at the New York Fashion Week in 2001.
At her first local Fashion Week show, she used 40% shweshwe, after which Da Gama approached her, offering to sponsor her for a while.
Walaza's father wanted her to be a doctor because she was good at maths and science, but when she started being a successful designer, he said: "I delayed you, you'd be far."
She describes her target market as a woman who is "individualist, a non-conformist".
The distinctive fabric, traditionally in indigo blue, brown and red, was introduced into the country in the mid-1800s by German immigrants settling in the Eastern Cape. The fabric was printed in Czechoslovakia and Hungary but in the 1930s production moved to England, with four companies supplying the ever-increasing demand in South Africa, according to the Da Gama website. The most popular brand name was Three Cats, originally only available in blue.
Local Xhosa women over time adopted the fabric, making dresses and skirts.
It is believed that the name derives from King Moshoeshoe I who was given a gift of printed indigo cloth - his name being adapted to "shweshwe" in time.
The manufacture of Indigo Discharge Printed Fabric, as it is called, in South Africa began in 1982 when UK company Tootal invested in Da Gama Textiles. The blue print fabric was produced under the Three Leopards trademark, the local version of Three Cats. At the same time two new colours were introduced – a warm brown, and a vibrant red.
In 1992 Da Gama bought the rights to the Three Cats range of designs, and once the copper rollers needed for production were shipped out to the Zwelitsha plant near King William's Town, it became an exclusively South Africa-manufactured product.
The original German print is still faithfully produced, using the traditional method of feeding the fabric through the copper rollers which have patterns etched into them, followed by a weak acid solution washed over the fabric, bleaching the trademark white patterns.
"The fabric can easily be identified for its intricate all-over prints and beautiful panels," says Da Gama.
Its distinctive trademark, Three Cats - Three Leopards has been dropped - appears on the back of the fabric. Another distinctive trademark is the stiffness of the new fabric. The stiffness stems from starch applied on the long sea voyage from England to South Africa, used to prevent damp damage, and is still used today. Once washed, the stiffness disappears.
The real thing
Although Chinese manufacturers now produce a rip-off shweshwe fabric, Anwar Vahed, home sewing sales manager at Da Gama, insists that customers can tell the genuine item by the "touch, smell and taste". He says that people do literally taste the fabric to test its authenticity.
Only the indigo fabric, like denim, is made to fade with washing, while the fake fabric fades quickly and doesn't endure like the original shweshwe, says Vahed.
Da Gama produces five million metres of shweshwe a year, says Vahed. Production used to be higher, but with increased competition in the local market, growth has stagnated. He says there is a need to establish new markets. The fabric is exported to neighbouring Lesotho and Botswana, and once the local market has grown, Da Gama wants to expand further north into Africa.
Vahed says Da Gama has embarked on a Seamstress Empowerment Programme, to help women start or expand their businesses, while growing Da Gama sales. A pilot programme had 44 women in Zwelitsha participate in a week-long training session in business skills, sales and marketing, and life skills. This is being followed by a three- to six-month mentoring programme, in which seamstresses are monitored and encouraged, shown how to keep records and market their products, open a bank account, and plan their future direction.
"The message to every woman was to make just one more dress a week, and grow the brand," says Vahed. The programme has now moved to Gauteng.
Competition has brought Da Gama "to its knees", says Vahed, but "it has stood the test of time, and been very strong, and very patient". Factory worker numbers have been reduced from 3 000 to 600, but there has been no compromise on 100% cotton quality. The imported fabric sells at around R25 a metre, half what the local shweshwe sells for, but, says Vahed, "you can't compare the two".
Shweshwe has durability, and "the market doesn't want it any different".
To grow the product beyond the traditional market, Da Gama has, in the past six years, brought out funky new colours - pink, orange, purple, and turquoise - to lure the younger woman.